Sometimes a mod for a PC game can become so popular that it nearly eclipses the original product. Counter-Strike, Defense of the Ancients, Dear Esther and others were all so popular that they went on to becoming stand-alone products. This has become the case with Arma II and the recent “Day Z” mod for it. Arma II is a squad-based shooter that emphasizes realism in its depiction of modern warfare, and Day Z adds zombies to this realistic world, turning it into an unusual survival horror experience. Sales of Arma II have skyrocketed on digital distributors like Steam since Day Z released as an alpha build. No doubt many of these new players bought the game just to fight the undead, but Arma II was a well-received game when it originally launched back in 2009, and it still offers much more than the opportunity to try the hip new zombie experience.
Arma II is a real man’s shooter and it doesn’t coddle new recruits like their mommas! The tutorial alone is several hours long and players should expect to die repeatedly during it. It covers the myriad of mechanics that can be performed in the game like shooting, driving, controlling a squad of infantry, parachuting, commanding a tank crew, flying helicopters and planes, plus constructing bases.
The single-player campaign is relatively long when compared to the brief adventures of the recent Battlefields and Calls of Duty. It also has solid replay value due the tactical choices involved in the missions. Players are put in charge of a fire team and then given options on how to progress as the missions get all FUBAR once boots are on the ground.
Optional side missions appear that the player can accept or decline, and eventually the single-player story changes to an open world style of design where players can roam around a vast section of topographically-accurate Russian terrain pursuing objectives in a non-linear style.
This use of wide-open design makes Arma II sometimes feel like Grand Theft Auto but it takes place on Niko Bellic’s home turf as players drive their Humvees through 225 square kilometers of the fictional nation of Chernarus.
The AI bugs that plagued it at launch have mostly been dealt with and now AI is exceptional, for both enemies and the AI-controlled teammates. The player isn’t a one-man army with a handful of Girl Scouts in tow. No, Razor Team is composed of competent virtual soldiers who will do their share of the work, and will often end up aggressively taking down enemies on the map while the Player deals with his own objectives. They’ll clear villages, scout out areas, and when stumped will call out enemies for the Player to bring down.
AI is sometimes too good as the Player’s squadmates can complete mission objectives on their own while the Player is engaged in run ‘n‘ gun activities.
Being focused on realism also means that controls for flying vehicles is more akin to a flight simulator than a Battlefield game. Depending on their familiarity with flight sims, players will have a tough time mastering the helicopters and “VTOL” jets. Luckily players can hop into any vehicle they like in the came, and this means “Borrowing” civilian vehicles too.
The flying controls aren’t the only thing that’s tricky about Arma II’s control scheme. Commanding the squad and interacting with the environment handles differently than most other shooters, and players will need to devote a lot of effort to becoming familiar with its idiosyncrasies.
Realism extends into other mechanics; there generally aren’t convenient waypoints on the HUD saying “Go here dumbass”, and players have to scout out large areas to locate targets. Often this means interacting with the local population to get information, and sometimes these are colorful Russian townsfolk who provide a good laugh).
Bullets also use realistic ballistics, which means that they don’t go exactly where the crosshairs are pointed, and they take a moment to actually travel there. Armchair snipers will likely enjoy this challenging aspect of Arma II.
Arma II is probably too hardcore for the typical shooter fan, but it has its own dedicated following that has grown in the years since launch and this means that multi-player always has servers full of players doing a variety of game modes and running player-made maps. Day Z isn’t the only mod for it either! Players have made new locations, gameplay tweaks, and even added in missions from the first Arma game.
Check back with Explosion.com next week for our review of the stand-alone expansion pack Operation Arrowhead, and our feature on Day Z.